Inside MOOCs: A First-Hand Account, Part 2

March 19th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

On a personal note, I’ve noticed that a medical event is not as devastating to progress in a semester when the class is online as it might be in a regular classroom. I may be behind, but I’m not missing the lectures. This is a real boon for students who have chronic or recurring illnesses, and a true benefit of a MOOC (massive open online course).

But I’m also behind in my MOOC diary which I started several weeks ago, and I hope the reader will forgive me for that. Now, onward.

A friend pointed me to this quote:

“And, finally, the organization of popular education will pass into the hands of Radio. The Supreme Soviet of Sciences will broadcast lessons and lectures to all schools of the country—higher institutions as well as lower.

“The teacher will become merely a monitor while these lectures are in progress. The daily transmission of lessons and textbooks through the sky into country schools of the nation, the unification of its consciousness into a single will.

“Thus will Radio forge continuous links in the universal soul and mold mankind into a single entity.”

(Velimir Khlebnikov, “Radio of the Future” [1921], trans. Paul Schmidt)

Seems to me that every new version of mass media has attempted to find a way to spread education to the masses, since the advent of the printing press. I remember old language records from childhood. Radio was seen as a potential pedagogical tool, and TV too, of course. NPR and PBS have maintained some success in this, of course, but pity all the cable channels that had their eyes on edification and now rely almost entirely on reality shows about child beauty pageants and weapons freaks.

There have certainly been some success in educational software. Rosetta Stone, for example, has taught me more French than I’d have gathered in the classroom, with less self-consciousness about learning to speak with a vaguely reasonable accent.

So it’s not surprising there are multiple outlets online for cobbling together an education online. The first real hit out of the ballpark was probably Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), which is a phenomenon of its own. But online learning is nothing new. A lot of schools had been partnering their classroom experiences with online content. My nephew in medical school tells me that there are many classes that people need not attend in person, because it’s pretty much all online.

So what makes a MOOC so different?

In my short experience — and with just the one MOOC course to go by — the significant difference for me has been the rather high production-value style of one-on-one professor-to-student experience in the presentation of the course material. However, some students in the forums have said that they wish the course at least occasionally showed us the classroom experience, as students take the course in the standard way, with the professor in the lecture hall, which is apparently going on concurrently at the University of Virginia (UVa). This, as one student said, would allow the online participants to have a sense of the classroom discussion. The desire to be in a classroom, debating controversial topics, stems from what appears to have become a rather intense conversation about Western vs. non-Western views of world history, and whether our professor is complicit in exacerbating a Eurocentric perspective that is too keenly felt, especially by the non-Western students, of which there are perhaps thousands in this MOOC.

The topic of the Eurocentric version of history is, of course, massive in itself. What I’m interested in at the moment, though, is that certain students believe that experiencing the physical classroom via video will provide them more insight than a large and diverse collection of discussion fora online.

I have pondered this for awhile. As you know, a large introductory lecture class is not usually the best site for deep discussion of controversial topics. And, in my experience as a TA, neither is a discussion section. There may be sections in which the occasional TA is able to elicit an exciting debate, but I can only imagine what disappointment the home scholar would feel as the camera pans the room, waiting for some student to tentatively let a comment fly. The presence of the camera might add an additional level of daunt to the proceedings, in fact.

Furthermore, this led me to recall my initial idea of the graduate seminar as an arena in which educated minds could meet and work out Big Ideas in a collegial yet challenging environment. Ah, the romance of the fledgling graduate student, prior to the realization that the seminar is made up of people who are competing for the attention of the professor and those who are trying to make it through a few hours without letting it slip that they hadn’t read the book.

Are we better off in the classroom than in the MOOC, where forum discussions are rampant and only somewhat moderated? In a discussion section, TAs can hope that their students will have learned their names by the end of the term. In the MOOC, the TAs may be completely invisible. Either way, many students will never meet their professor. With a MOOC, you’re welcome to join other locals at a Meet-Up — if there are other locals. Forums often lead to rather unexpurgated, sometimes crass interactions, of course, and we may miss the interactions with our in-person peers. But I continue to think that the college classroom and the MOOC are, and are likely to continue to be, two very different audiences. The presence of the MOOC does not signal the end of traditional college learning, at least not in the near future, from what I can see now.

Inside MOOCs: A First Hand Account, Part 1

January 28th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

As MOOCs are all the rage these days, I thought I should take one for a spin to see what the experience was like, from the standpoint of a student. I find the pedagogical implications of MOOCs, or “massive open online courses” to be intriguing, and I am always interested in furthering my education. I’m drawn to the ethnographic possibilities in any situation, so when Patricia Lange suggested that I might do an ethno diary of my MOOCing experience, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the diary entries, with initial impressions of the first week of class. I intend to add additional entries during the semester.

I haven’t seen the inside of a classroom, either as a student or teacher, for some years, having had to concede my part-time lecturing to the pressing need for health insurance. Currently I work on behalf of others’ research in a field not my own, but it’s steady work and I can now afford to see a doctor. The struggle to find a teaching position for an MA/ABD scholar in anthropology is particularly difficult, as anyone who has a PhD and a resume on the move might well appreciate. But this has not dampened my enthusiasm for education, and so I’m always up for immersion in new forms.

I signed up for an undergraduate-level course on the history of the modern world, taught by a University of Virginia prof with an impressive CV. While I can lay claim to an expensive graduate education, I was missing a good overview of world history, and I was especially interested in getting a good chronology of the birth and growth of modernism, so this seemed an ideal course.  After signing up, I received a few emails reminding me when the course would start, with some hints as to what to expect, and with the startling information that approximately 40,000 people had also signed up for the same course. (I’ve since learned that upwards of 100,000 people for a course is not unheard of.) After that, I received no new information until the first day of “class.”

Some initial impressions and take-aways:

When there are 40,000 people in your class, you should order your books as early as possible. In this course, in fact, there is an online textbook that one can “rent” for about $25 for the semester. There is also a recommended reading list, with at least one book that shows up in the syllabus frequently, that one can backorder online. Presumably my copy will show up during the semester. None of these readings, by the way, are required for the course, but are recommended if you want to go beyond the PowerPoint. I assume that a great many people are purchasing or leasing a license to read the textbook. (Non-American students apparently are having trouble accessing the textbook.)

The forums for the course are active. If you’ve spent a modicum of time in social networks, this is comfortable territory, and the first forum established is the standard “Who are you people and where are you from?” query. So far, about 800 people have responded to the question, and from a brief look at the replies, I see that the majority of students are not logging in from the US; there seem to be a substantial number from China, Ukraine, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the UK, Spain, and the Philippines. There is at least one student from Mozambique, and many other countries as far-flung as one can imagine from UVA.

Issues of scale are, of course, immediately evident. Early numbers seem to indicate that one can expect a course to end with 7 to 9 percent of its original student body. That’s still an impressive number of people. And, of course, I’m the student body; it’s just me at my desk. Me and my professor, who seems quite charming.

The professor, of course, is talking to me on my computer, in much the same way that the host of a PBS program is talking to me on my TV. It’s a comfortable space to be in; it’s recognizably cozy. I can fix my gaze and memorize expressions and gestures, without embarrassment. And then I can go to the forum, where the fans are gathering to discuss which catch phrases and expressions are generating buzz. “Make yourself comfortable,” the professor tells us at the beginning of each video session (and there are several of these each week), except when he doesn’t say it. “He didn’t tell me to make myself comfortable at the start of section 2.4! I had to make myself comfortable without being reminded.” A joke, but telling of the significance of a repeated phrase of welcome. An active forum describes how delightful his smile is when he tells us that he’ll see us next time. Charming and witty! People are loving our professor.

There are people working behind the scenes; they are the MOOC team. I presume that these are TAs and RAs. I want to find out more about this team, but so far they seem to be working on glitches with grading and swiftly rewriting quiz questions into a multiple-choice format, as the forums are alight with disgruntled quiz-takers, especially those for whom English is not the first language.

And who are the students? Are we assuming an audience that is of undergraduate age, more or less, people who are not well-served by or without access to the current American undergraduate system? A cursory look at the forum replies about why people are taking the class shows that — at least among those who are self-selecting to answer the question — many of the students are retired and want to exercise their intellects; others are Americans living overseas, or are new mothers who need some stimulation. Many are people who already have college educations but want to add something to their educational resumes.

It’s early days with MOOCs, of course, and with my personal experience, but I’m seeing some intriguing patterns that may not fit with the expectations of those who are eyeing the platform with pedagogical suspicion or with hope for a radical disruption of the current model for college education.

Comments regarding my MOOC diary entries are most enthusiastically welcome!

MOOCs in the Machine, Part II

January 3rd, 2013, by § 2 Comments

In Part I, I asked how MOOCs (massive online open courses) are potentially poised to “disrupt” academia thanks to broader structural and economic shifts that need to be addressed independently, while still considering the value of online education. In this second half, I turn towards ways to rethink graduate education as a consequence of changes in academia and the academic job market.

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While MOOCs have become a popular topic of discussion, less attention has been paid to those rethinking the structure of graduate education, to address related issues (including restructuring humanities dissertations  and shortening the length of doctoral programs). Notably, Stanford has been moving forward with an initiative to cut the time-to-degree for humanities programs to five years, by soliciting concrete plans from individual departments in exchange for year-round grad student funding. I can’t speak to whether five years is a reasonable length for humanities Ph.D. programs, but it does seem that many additional years some spend in grad school don’t confer greater benefit. In anthropology, it’s hard to imagine completing a doctorate in under six years, assuming at least a year of field research, on top of course work, qualifying exams, and writing up (plus, of course, going on the job market). But according to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, the Stanford initiative is premised on numerous reasons that slow progress on the Ph.D. benefits neither students nor institutions, quoting the proposal request: “Extended time to degree can represent a significant drain on institutional resources as well as major costs to students, both in the form of indebtedness and postponed entry onto a career path. We ask programs to examine the current structure of degree requirements in order to determine what reforms might expedite degree completion.” As the RFP points out, long years in grad school often increase students’ debt burden while delaying their ability to begin post-Ph.D. careers (and earnings), in or out of academia.

This touches on a larger debate about graduate education, which I don’t want to get into here. Instead, I want to call attention to the link between critiques of graduate education and changes in the structure of academia more broadly, the same changes fueling much of the debate about how technology will “disrupt” higher education. One commenter on  Jaschik’s piece, for example, points out that many doctoral students delay graduating precisely because of the abysmal job market, while in fields with greater job opportunities (both in and out of academia), students finish much more quickly owing to better incentives. In a similar vein, one professor at Stanford, Jennifer Summit, is quoted as saying that elite institutions often prepare their students insufficiently for teaching at inclusive public institutions, even though most faculty work in such settings: “She was thinking of assessment and digital teaching tools and using analytics. ‘At Research I’s, we like to think we invented online teaching and learning, but the comprehensive publics and community colleges have been doing this for a long time.’”

A more productive response to the changing landscape of education and the economy, then, entails considering what changes make sense and how we can re-imagine some aspects of graduate training and undergraduate teaching without conceding the inevitable decline of public education. What should be the role of faculty at “non-elite” (and elite) institutions with the advent of MOOCs? How can we benefit from online resources, to share syllabi and lectures and teach more effectively? Presumably, this requires better ways to evaluate teaching and learning, beyond the “audit culture” norms of surveying student satisfaction. I think Stanford is right to identify student funding as a crucial piece of reforming graduate education. At UC Irvine, for example, most anthropology grad students are funded by TAships, with limited internal fellowship support available (and nearly none for research abroad). On one hand, I found TA training and experience invaluable exposure to teaching, running sections, grading, and academic time management, but these benefits wane after the first few terms. After that, TAing mostly takes away from time spent studying or completing the dissertation and does not offer the same preparation as teaching as the instructor of record. Moreover, TAs provide relatively inexperienced teaching assistance to universities, often by grad students in the early stages of their careers.

What if doctoral programs reorganized grad student labor instead, shifting teaching obligations from TAships that delay graduation to short-term post-Ph.D. positions? In exchange for full fellowship funding and a shorter time to degree (with perhaps one or two terms of TAing for experience), doctoral students could agree to stay on for one to two years of full-time teaching at their degree-granting institution, for a modest salary (more than a TAship but perhaps less than many postdocs). This would benefit graduate students in numerous ways, including by completing their doctoral degrees more quickly and receiving better teaching preparation, while waiting to go on the job market until the dissertation is finished. Universities would benefit by replacing large lectures (around 400 students at my doctoral alma mater, UC Irvine), with smaller courses taught by their own recent Ph.D.s, instead of relying on grad student TAs as heavily — similar to how many schools already rely extensively on lecturers and adjuncts, but with the benefit of having students complete their degrees more quickly.

Of course, this proposal does not address the more fundamental problem of reduced budgets or neoliberal academic restructuring, but could still improve some aspects of graduate education. I offer this more as an illustration of ways we could begin rethinking the structure of academia broadly. Defunding education may not be inevitable as Shirky implies, but is linked to broader processes that are endemic to late liberalism. What are constructive ways we can reorganize higher education and research without succumbing to these shifts?

MOOCs in the Machine, Part I

December 29th, 2012, by § 4 Comments

Digital technologies are transforming communication practices in many settings, and higher education is no exception. In particular, “massive open online classes” (MOOCs) have been garnering attention and provoking questions about the future of college education, in the U.S. and elsewhere. MOOCs could potentially “disrupt” current models of education, according to some like Clay Shirky, but their growing popularity owes much to the current state of the economy (in the U.S. and more globally) and the neoliberalization of the academy, as some critics contend. The conversation about MOOCs needs to take place in the context of broader structural changes in academia, to recognize both their promise and their limitations.

In his recent blog piece, Shirky avers that MOOCs will disrupt education just as MP3s and other digital content disrupted established “old media” industries like the recording industry, by changing the “story” of what’s possible:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

Shirky advocates MOOCs not as a replacement for elite institutions but as a better way to educate everybody else – non-elite students at flagging public institutions or exploitative for-profit programs: “The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.”

Despite the numerous and worthwhile critiques of Shirky’s technological optimism, one point stands out to me as meriting further discussion. He suggests that large introductory lectures are largely about saving money, rather than offering the best instruction, and that relying on grad student TAs “let[s] a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time.” There are many reasons for faculty to develop original lectures, of course, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences like anthropology. Shirky’s understanding of education also appears instrumentalist in some ways, presuming that professors at elite institutions offers the best quality lectures and that non-elite students would benefit from hearing these lectures instead: “Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.” This strikes me as a reductive approach to what constitutes lecturing. At the same time, I’ve often wondered why it makes sense to create introductory courses from scratch when teaching them for the first time, rather than building on the work of others (as we do in many other contexts). How might online or digital resources make it easier to share course materials among faculty, without replacing the value faculty bring to each class they teach?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Aaron Bady takes up some of these issues to level an in-depth critique of the assumptions informing Shirky’s views. According to Bady, Shirky’s assessment reflects a technological optimism in which digital technologies will inevitably transform teaching and education. Academe (faculty and administrators) will be the last bastion of resistance because they are inherently (and tautologically) self-serving—they must justify their own existence. Yet, as Bady points out, Shirky nowhere provides evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs. Bady construes this as resulting from the speculative bent of venture capital:

While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

On the contrary, Bady reminds us to ask why desire for education has outstripped its availability and affordability, and suggests that Shirky’s emphasis on “non-elites” reinforces the distinction between elite students and institutions and everybody else. MOOC providers like Udacity, a for-profit service described by Shirky, can justify offering mediocre courses because they are free. In Bady’s view, we should instead focus on how defunding public education is eroding the mass higher ed system that provided accessible college educations to middle-class (and aspiring middle-class) Americans for many decades.

While I don’t find Shirky’s arguments without merit, Bady is right to bring the focus back to why higher education has changed as it has. The larger conversation about “disrupting” college education often lacks this dimension – it’s well and good to ask whether it makes sense for many young people to take on thousands of dollars in debt when they still may not get a job, but the reality is that this situation is the product of growing economic inequality and vastly reduced state budgets. The concentration of wealth among elites is part of the same process that has led to high unemployment and reduced tax revenues, despite soaring corporate profits.

The debate over MOOCs, then, needs to take place in the context of the increasing flexibilization and neoliberalization of the university. There are certainly legitimate critiques of higher ed and elite institutions that MOOCs might potentially address. As an anthropologist of digital and online media, I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of online education. It would be useful to think through what it is teachers actually provide, which is much more than simply transmitting information. But I also want to link these issues to larger problems in graduate education and the changing structure of the academy. For example, the job market is still in shambles, at least from my perspective as a new Ph.D. Clearly, this situation is unlikely to improve if universities continue replacing tenure lines with temporary positions—or MOOCs. Fewer tenure-track positions also mean fewer opportunities for conducting research, and neither Bady nor Shirky address the importance to teaching of staying current with recent research. How can we challenge these shifts in academia while taking advantages of the possible benefits and advantages of online education, especially massive and open courses?

In Part II, I take up these questions further and consider how we might rethink some aspects of graduate training in relation to broader changes in the structure of academia.

Welcome to the New Team for 2014!

January 14th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The CASTAC Blog is pleased to announce our new team for 2014. Joining our Web Producer Jordan Kraemer is our new Associate Web Producer Angela Kristin VandenBroek! Angela brings to the position significant experience in web design and development, and was the recipient of an EduStyle Award. We are excited to have her on board!

I will be continuing on as Editor and will oversee the Blog’s content. At the same time, we are very pleased to announce our new team of Associate Editors (AEs) who will be responsible for bringing exciting new content to the Blog! Below please find their names and contact information listed for your perusal. Please feel free to contact them if you have ideas for blog posts in their areas! « Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Birthday to The CASTAC Blog! We Need YOU!

November 5th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Well, this week marks The CASTAC’s Blog’s first birthday, and I think cake is in order! I’m ordering chocolate of course! It has been a wonderful and exciting year as we have kicked off a new blog that is dedicated to exchanging ideas about science and technology as social phenomena.

We thank everyone who has posted about their research or their opinions on a staggeringly impressive range of topics, from drones to steampunk! I look forward to all the wonderful posts and commentary that we’ll see in the coming year!

Happy Birthday Chocolate

The CASTAC Blog is now working through some growing pains! We are pleased to announce that it is time to expand our team! We are seeking 6-7 Associate Editors and 1 Associate Web Producer to ensure the continuously high quality of content that you’ve come to expect from The CASTAC Blog. The job duties and descriptions are as follows:

Associate Editors – During the year-long position, responsibilities will include bringing 6-7 posts to the blog within a specific topic area. Posts should generally be solicited from external authors, scholars, and practitioners, but should also include a few posts written by the Associate Editor as needed and/or appropriate. Associate Editors will also be responsible for facilitating co-ordination between authors and the Editor, light copy editing, and closely tracking correspondence via email or possibly occasionally Skype to discuss publishing schedules.

Associate Web Producer – Responsibilities for the year-long position include site maintenance, updates, and backups, managing user accounts, help with publishing posts and images, including layout and design, site promotion and optimization, and general technical and back-end support. Some familiarity with WordPress or other blogging platforms required; knowledge of HTML, CSS, web design, FTP, and general web administration preferred.

Interested parties for the Associate Position should submit a c.v. and your top 2 choices for the content you would like to cover. Please also provide a sense of the kinds of blog post ideas you might suggest for your area. Applicants interested in the Associate Web Producer position should submit a c.v. and brief description of past experience with website/blog production and maintenance. The new team will meet at the upcoming AAA conference in Chicago to discuss strategies for next year’s blogging schedule.

Topics include but are not limited to:

Computers & Hacking
Healthcare
Medical Imaging
Laboratory Culture
AI & Robotics
Military
Space & Aeronautics
Social Media & Digital Anthropology
Communications Devices
Big Data
Pharmaceuticals
Online Education and MOOCs
Scientific Practice
Energy
Environment
Everyday technology
Other?

Becoming an Associate Editor or Associate Web Producer is a great way to:

Build external service on your c.v.
Keep abreast of new and exciting trends in your area of expertise
Showcase your work and research
Help support an interactive community of STS scholars

Please send a c.v., your top 2 choices of topic area and a few ideas for potential blog posts to:

Patricia G. Lange, Editor-in-Chief
plange@cca.edu

Looking forward to a great year ahead!

EPIC 2013 Preview

August 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference is being held 15-18 September in London. EPIC is an important international conference for sharing insight on current and future practices of ethnography in industry.

Next month’s conference promises to be very exciting and productive. The program boasts a wide variety of topics, including a number of papers that will quite likely be of interest to CASTAC and STS practitioners and scholars. Many of the themes in the program, such as big data, MOOCs, and energy have been hot topics for The CASTAC Blog in recent months.

IS DATA THE NEW OIL?
Several papers at EPIC will be discussing “Big Data,” which is a topic that is heating up and is germane for anthropological theory and practice. Big Data, which has been discussed in a prior post by David Hakken, has been designated as a new asset class akin to oil and has consequently sparked a kind of “gold rush.” Papers on this subject are tackling this seemingly unchecked, and at times unreflective, stampede over exactly what kind of “data” is being collected. Researchers will explore whether whatever-it-is that is being collected can be called “data,” given the term’s disparate connotations. (Does anyone want to have a go at what to call these large-scale information streams?)

The discussion will quite likely be quite interesting because it promises to dive into the epistemological, methodological, and practical boundaries over what this term constitutes. It will discuss what role ethnography will play, not just in terms of data collection, but investigating what data really means in everyday contexts. Abby Margolis’s paper, in particular, reminds us that the “fundamental role of innovation” starts with “the person,” which of course is a particular strength of ethnography. Her paper plans to address common misconceptions about personal data, and will offer principles to “bring a human-centered, small data perspective to life.”

TRANSFORMING ENERGY INTO PERSONAL POWER
The struggle over energy, which was recently discussed in a fascinating post by Phillip Vannini, surfaces again in several ways at the EPIC conference. Researchers presenting on Private Energy Users and Smart Grid Design will explore the new relationship between energy providers and users. Despite the intention to create a more bidirectional relationship between companies and customers, familiar unidirectional patterns are continually repeated. Researchers will be proposing a model that reframes the relationship between energy companies and private end users. These themes suggest that people can derive a sense of personal power through shaping the design and delivery of their energy. According to researchers, providing energy is not about a delivering a resource, but rather aims to solve particular problems, including meeting human needs for “comfort, light, food, cleaning, and entertainment.” Using an anthropological lens, it is contended, will provide a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between supply and use of energy products and services.

MORE ON MOOCS
EPIC participants will be discussing research on student perceptions of MOOCs, a theme which echoes concerns of many CASTAC readers and academics. A CASTAC series exploring MOOCs from a student’s perspective found that they may not be serving the college-age constituents that were originally (and fearfully) envisioned by MOOC promoters and concerned scholars. It will be interesting to hear the results of an ethnography of MOOCs that seriously challenges their effectiveness and pedagogical sustainability.

TECHNO|THEORY DEATHMATCH
In addition to traditional panels, thought-provoking PechaKucha style provocations, salons, and town halls, the conference is also holding a TechnoTheory DeathMatch! The organizers tell us to “think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club.” Revamping dynamics of theory and practice, this novel approach will be a round-robin type of tournament in which participants represent leading theorists and duke it out to arrive at winning insights.

In addition to the examples noted above, EPIC will be discussing many other interesting topics, including complexity, mobile technologies, clinical trials, healthcare, and emerging markets in information and communication technologies in rural China and India. More details about the conference program can be found on the EPIC Conference Program website.

Rethinking Scale in Social Media: An Ethnographic Perspective

July 23rd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Scale has been a recent buzzword in discussions of social and digital media, as our editor Patricia G. Lange traced out in her January retrospective post. From MOOCs to Big Data, emerging communication technologies are making possible (and visible) large-scale interactions that have been attracting attention from many quarters, including anthropology. I want to revisit this conversation by discussing further what scale means in the context of networked media, especially social and mobile technologies.

Is scale the new global?

On the cusp of the new millennium in the late 1990s, there was a lot of buzz over the global reach of the Internet, linked to broader interest in how new communication technologies were entwined with globalizing processes. The World Wide Web itself was envisioned as spanning the globe, while globalism infected the popular imagination. Nearly twenty years on, the Internet has yet to bring about global equality or democracy, though it is playing a central role in many protest movements and political upheavals.

Part of the challenge for anthropologists and others studying networked and digital communications lies in grappling with the changes new technologies make possible, even as we recognize that technology never solely determines events in one direction. Social media, in the sense of networked communication platforms that articulate social ties and depend on user-created content, have certainly fostered new forms of mass protest and organization (as Victoria Barassi recently chronicled). But at the same time, technologies often become popular because they operate according to—and reproduce—existing cultural norms.

In my work, I look specifically at how social and mobile technologies are transforming everyday experiences of space and place. Though scale can refer to the size or scope of digital communications, it can also mean the geographic or spatial level of social relations, connections, and interactions. The global stands out as one such scale, as does the local or the national. Many cultural geographers have argued, however, that geographic scales are socially produced means of organizing social space, such as national borders, international trade agreements, or urban infrastructure (see for example Brenner 1998, 2001; Marston 2000; Massey 1993; and many others). The way scales are organized, moreover, reflects the circulation of capital and its unequal distribution of power.

Digital media, such as the Internet, are sometimes described as allowing place-less interactions and connections, with the Internet creating its own spaces (e.g. chat rooms or virtual worlds). Rethinking geographic scales as culturally constructed calls attention to how both the “local” and the “global” entail different kinds of place-making practices (but which often happen in the same physical places, as Doreen Massey has pointed out). As the debate shifts away from questions of local versus global (or the ungainly neologism “glocal”), perhaps the concept of scale, and scalemaking, is more helpful in understanding space and place online.

Ethnography of scale making

Binaries such as local/global can of course be useful, but can also distract from other distinctions, such as other kinds of place and place-making. In my work in Berlin, for example, I found that small groups of friends used social media to connect and interact with friends and contacts at multiple geographic levels. This included local friendships that took place in central districts of Berlin, regional ties to friends and family, especially to rural regions in eastern Germany, national reading publics consuming the same news media online, and transnational or translocal communities of music fans. Translocal connections in this sense took place across multiple locales, comprising a music scene that existed simultaneously in different places without necessarily being transnational.

Thinking about scale draws attention to how these levels themselves—local, regional, national, transnational—are constructed and reordered through everyday practice. Users, for example, moved through multiple publics and audiences online, often by employing language practices such as code switching. Among the circles of friends I studied, users often posted in English to address an audience envisioned as global or cosmopolitan. Using English also located events in Berlin in transnational cultural circuits, while German was often reserved for discussing topics German-speakers viewed as relevant to other co-nationalists, such as national German news stories. Switching between English and standard German made it possible to move between co-nationalists and transnational audiences in the same online spaces. Social media like Facebook further facilitated bringing together relationships at multiple scales, including local friendships, regional German ties, and transnational networks, generating new scales in the process. The globalness of online communications may therefore owe not to global or transnational connections but to a multiplicity of place-making activities.

Along with geographic binaries like local/global, social and mobile media are further complicating distinctions between online and offline. Numerous anthropologists have challenged the utility of this division, arguing that Internet media are already socially embedded, that is, the product of existing social relations, and can constitute real social spaces (e.g. Miller and Slater 2000:6). Tom Boellstorff (2008) has contended that virtual worlds like Second Life are no more or less culturally constructed than offline “real” worlds. From this perspective, “face-to-face” or “real life” communication is as mediated as computer-mediated interactions (through, for example, language, gesture, sartorial style, and other forms of embodied habitus).

Whose social media?

Social and mobile media, however, are more ubiquitous and integrated into daily practice than many earlier Internet platforms. Though many experience the Internet as a separate space of communication, those I studied described digital communications as “continuous” rather than discrete, such as chatting over instant messenger on and off throughout the day. Scholars of social media are finding it more helpful to analyze diverse communication practices on Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones, for example, in terms of “connection strategies” users employ in different contexts (Ellison et al. 2011; Subrahmanyam 2008). Users I studied, for example, simultaneously interacted with close friends on Facebook while connecting to friends-of-friends with shared music interests or to new acquaintances met at events in Berlin. Most users also reserved some technologies for a smaller circle of friends and family, especially instant and text messaging, Skype, and email (as well as voice calls). The question then becomes not whether people are interacting online or offline, but how they are using different platforms and with whom. How do social and mobile media shape ways of making sense of space and place as interactions and relationships take place across multiple technologies?

This approach echoes work being done on the materiality of digital media, in which scholars like Katherine Hayles (2004) advocate a “media-specific analysis” to recognize the materiality of digital and analog encodings alike. Hayles argues that both digital and print texts, for example, exist in materially specific instantiations, but that their materiality differs in ways that affect how they are produced and experienced. In my forthcoming article (Kraemer n.d.) on Facebook friendship in Germany, I take up these questions to investigate how implicitly American interactional norms structure social relations among friend networks at multiple scales in Berlin and Europe. Although German and other European users successfully negotiated gaps between their and Facebook’s construction of friendship, further work needs to address how the “social” of social media represents a culturally (and geographically) specific understanding of social life.

References

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brenner, N. 1998. Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D, 16: 459–481. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d160459

Brenner, N. 2001. The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration. Progress in Human Geography, 25(4): 591–614. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/25/4/591

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. 2011. Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media and Society, 13(6): 873–892. http://nms.sagepub.com/content/13/6/873

Hayles, N. K. 2004. Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The importance of media-specific analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1), 67–90. http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/25/1/67.abstract

Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370024.2013.823821

Marston, S. A. 2000. The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2): 219–242. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/24/2/219

Massey, D. 1993. “Power geometry and a progressive sense of place.”. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change Edited by: Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. 59–69. Routledge.

Miller, D., & Slater, D. 2000. The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N. and Espinoza, G. 2008. Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6): 420–433. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397308000713

 

 

Looking Ahead to 2013: A Question of Scale

January 10th, 2013, by § 2 Comments

The CASTAC community joined together in 2012 to launch this blog and begin dialogue on contemporary issues and research approaches. Even though the blog is just getting off the ground, certain powerful themes are already emerging across different projects and areas of study. Key themes for the coming year include dealing with large data sets, connecting individual choices to larger economic forces, and translating the meaning of actions from different realms of experience.

Perhaps the most visible trend on our minds right now involves dealing with scale. How can anthropologists, ethnographers, and other STS scholars address large data sets and approaches in research and pedagogy, while also retaining an appropriate relationship to the theories and methods that have made our disciplines strong? As we look ahead to 2013, it would seem that a big question for the CASTAC community involves finding creative and ethical ways to deal with phenomena that range from the overwhelmingly large to the microscopic, in order to provide insight and serve our constituents in research and teaching.

Discussing large-scale forays into education and research

In the past two weeks in her posts on MOOCs in the Machine, Jordan Kraemer, our dedicated Web Producer, has been reflecting on how higher education is grappling with MOOCs, or “massive open online classes,” which open up opportunities to those who have been shut out of traditional elite institutions. At the same time, serious questions emerged about the ramifications of trade-offs between saving money and providing high-quality education. Kraemer points out that much of the debate ties into larger arguments about why it is that people have been shut out of education and how concentration of wealth and the neoliberalization of the university are challenging the old equation of supporting open-ended research that ultimately strengthens and supports teaching. She proposes new forms of graduate education in which recent graduates are supported by their universities with teaching jobs, to complete teaching experience, transfer teaching loads from full-time faculty, and support graduate students as they transition into full-time positions.

Part of the issue with MOOCs has to do with questions of scale, and how or whether individual lectures and course preparation can be generalized to large-scale audiences in ways that provide solid instruction without compromising quality. Higher-education depends upon staying current with research, and so far, we do not have enough evidence to support the idea that MOOCs will work or will address all of the concerns emerging from the neoliberalization of the academy. Those of us interested in online interaction and pedagogy will be watching this space closely in the coming year.

Questions of scale also came into play with Daniel Miller’s discussion of doing Eight Comparative Ethnographies. Miller argues that doing several ethnographies at the same time will enable comparative questions that are not possible when investigating one site alone. He provides an example from social network sites. He asks, to what extent are particular behaviors the product of a type of site, a single site, or the intersection of cultures in which a site is embedded? Is the behavior so because it is happening on Facebook or because the participants are Brazilian? A comparative study enables a level of analysis that is more inclusive than that derived from a single study. Expanding scale without compromising the traditions and benefits of ethnographic work remains a challenge for these and other large-scale projects in the future, which have the potential to provide crucial insights.

Making small-scale choices visible

As one set of researchers bring up issues with regard to enormously large-scale education and research, other STS participants on The CASTAC Blog are dealing with the opposite issue, which involves grappling with how the dynamics of extremely personal and individualistic acts—such as the donation of sex cells—interact with large-scale economic and cultural forces. In her post on The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm, Rene Almeling, the winner of the 2012 Forsythe Prize, provides an inside look into how human beings’ donations of sex cells are connected to much larger economic forces that play out differently for women and men. Women are urged to regard egg donation as a feminine act of a gift; men are encouraged to see donation as a job. Almeling ties our understanding of what might be an individual act into economic forces, as well as gendered, cultural expectations about families and reproduction. Gendered framings of donation not only impact the individuals who provide genetic material, but also strongly influence the structure of the market for sex cells.

Promoting responsibility

Another key issue on our minds has to do with dealing with personal responsibility and showing how individual choices impact much larger social and economic forces in finance, computing, and going green.

In his post, On Building Social Robustness, David Hakken raises the question of how individuals contributed to large-scale economic and social crises, such as the recent disasters in the world of finance. His project is informed by work that is trying to deal with the first “5,000 years” in the history of debt. He proposes developing a notion of social robustness, parallel to the idea of the technical notion of robustness in computer science.

His work provides an intriguing use of ideas from people whom we study, and applying them as an inspiration for making social change. When Hakken asks about the extent to which computing professionals are ethically responsible for the financial crisis, he is proposing a way of asking how a large-scale disaster can be traced to more individual, micro-units of action. By investigating these connections, his project informs a conversation that is increasingly picking up steam in the area of the anthropology of value.

Hakken’s reflections are especially haunting as he warns of the difficulties of building a career in anthropology and STS. As he is moving towards retirement, his perspective is especially valued in our community. As an antidote to more provincial institutional perspectives, he urges a more consolidated and community approach that involves supporting each other in doing the important work that the CASTAC community has the potential to achieve.

Questions of scale and responsibility are once again intertwined in David J. Hess’s post on Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition. Hess points out that a non-partisan political issue has become partisan despite the fact that the planet has now surpassed a carbon dioxide level that it has not had for at least 800,000 years! But because change is imperceptibly slow to the human eye, politics is allowed to complicate change. Hess has worked to investigate what he calls the “problem behind the problem,” which involves the lack of political will to address environmental sustainability and social fairness, which considerably worsens the environmental problem itself. He provides real solutions through an ambitious three-part series of books that propose “alternative pathways” or social movements centered on reform in part through the efforts of the private sector.

Notably, personal experiences in anthropology inform Hess’s work. Although he is in a sociology department and in an energy and environment institute, he points out that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform his thinking. While the discourse on these issues has traditionally revolved around a two party system, Hess’s more anthropological approach makes visible other ideologies such as localism and developmentalism that may pave a more direct path to “good green jobs” and a more sensitive and responsible green policy. Again interacting with questions of scale, Hess’s notions of responsibility are grounded in understanding the “broad contours” of the “tectonic shifts” of ideology and policy that are underway in working toward a green transition in the United States and around the world. Without real action, however, his prognoses remains pessimistic.

Translating phenomena across different realms of experience

A theme that also emerged from our nascent blog’s initial posts had to do with understanding the ramifications of processing one realm of experiencing by using metaphors and concepts from another. In her post on the Anthropological Investigations of MIME-NET, Lucy Suchman explores the darker side of entertainment and its relationship to military applications. She investigates how information and communication technologies have “intensified rather than dissipated” what theorists have described as the “fog of war.”

The problem is partly one of translation. How is it possible to maintain what military strategists call “situational awareness,” which has to do with maintaining a constant and accurate mental image of relevant tactical information. Suchman is studying activities such as The Flatworld Project, which bring together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming, and other models of immersive computing to understand these dynamics. Such a project also involves analyzing how such approaches “extend human capacities for action at a distance,” and present ethical challenges to researchers as they grapple with military realms and connecting seemingly disparate but interrelated areas such as war and healthcare.

Lisa Messeri’s post, Anthropology and Outer Space, offers an absolutely fascinating look into human conceptualization of place. She asks, why should earthlings be concerned about what is happening on Mars? Her work focuses on how “scientists transform planets from objects into places.” Significant milestones in space exploration such as the passing of Venus between the Earth and the Sun (not scheduled to do so again until 2117) and the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, provide rich areas to mine for understanding cultural notions of place and human exploration. Curiosity has its own Twitter account (!) and tweets freely about its experience of “springtime” in its southern hemisphere. Messeri argues that this kind of language “bridges” our worlds in that Curiosity somehow seems to experience something that is familiar to humans—springtime. Scientists are now studying things that are so far away that telescopes cannot take an image of them. Somehow, these “invisible” objects become familiar and complex. Planets begin to seem like places because of the way in which language “makes the strange familiar,” and bridges the experience between events on an exoplanet and life on Earth.

Astronomers become place makers, and observing these processes shows how spaces become “social” even as Messeri argues, “humans will never visit such planetary places.” Messeri shows how such conceptualizations can lead to the spread of erroneous scientific rumors that get reported on national news organizations. Her work shows not only how knowledge production is compromised by the use of such metaphors but also provides an intriguing look at how humans process invisible objects through the cultural production of imagined place.

Tune in next week!

Given that questions of scale were on our minds in 2012, it is especially fitting that we launch 2013 with a discussion about Big Data, and the challenges and opportunities that emerge when entities collect and combine huge data sets that are far too large to handle through ordinary coding schemes or desktop databases. Social scientists, technologists, and other researchers must grapple with numerous issues including legibility, data integrity, ethics, and usability. I am particularly pleased that David Hakken agreed to be interviewed by The CASTAC Blog to discuss his views. Next week, he provides fascinating insights into what the future holds for dealing with Big Data!

Before signing off, I would like to thank everyone for their participation in The CASTAC Blog, especially those who wrote posts, left comments, read articles, and tweeted our posts to the world. I very much appreciated everyone’s participation. The richness of the posts makes it too difficult to adequately cover all the content of the past year in one commentary, but rest assured that everyone’s post is contributing to the conversation and is valued by the CASTAC community.

In an effort to include more voices and keep a continuing flow of content, The CASTAC Blog is now seeking a core group of “frequent” contributors to keep pace with new developments in this space in 2013. Notice that I use the term “frequent” sparingly—even a few posts throughout the year makes you a frequent contributor. Please consider sharing your thoughts and views with the CASTAC community. If you would like to join in, please email me at: plange@cca.edu.

I look forward to an interesting and productive year ahead!

Patricia G. Lange
Editor-in-Chief
The CASTAC Blog

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